Jim Tressel is an incredibly skilled football coach and program steward. However it is increasingly apparent that he is inversely skilled in the delicate dark arts of cheating and lying.
If Tressel is really this Teflon-coated serial swindler that has continually subverted NCAA rules for decades as many of his detractors claim, then all of a sudden he has completely lost control of his craft. If the sudden atrophy of his conniving abilities was first revealed by the flimsy excuses he gave for not immediately reporting the Tatgate scandal at the hasty press conference following the revelation that Ohio State was investigating the timeline, it was totally confirmed by the Dispatch report this morning of whom Tressel did report the news to.
Once Tressel was covertly alerted by attorney Christopher Cicero that several of his star players were probably selling their possessions to a tattoo parlor proprietor who was about to be implicated in a Federal drug trafficking probe, he had some choices to make. Unfortunately, his options only ranged from bad to terrible:
1) He could have done nothing and "found out" like everyone else eventually once the news went public. The "it got lost in my giant inbox" folder could have worked, since there would have been no hard evidence that he actually read it. The players would have eventually been ruled ineligible, but the storm Tressel would be facing now wouldn't be nearly this violent.
2) He could have immediately told Gene Smith and the Ohio State compliance office. The players would have eventually been ruled ineligible, but Tressel would be facing none of this mess.
3) He could have gone offline and off the communication grid - which is how he always handled these things at Youngstown State, with Clarett, etc, right? - and worked the appropriate channels to make the problem go away. The players might have eventually been ruled ineligible, but Tressel would be facing none of this mess if his tracks were appropriately covered (if Tressel really is who Tressel haters say he is, this should have happened).
4) He could have used his extremely traceable Ohio State email account which can be accessed by a simple public records request to email a known booster who has long been rumored to be an unsavory handler of Terrelle Pryor since his childhood to see what he thinks Tressel should do. And then lie about it.
This isn't Monday morning quarterbacking. You don't need hindsight to know not to do what Tressel did. No 58-year old requires a lesson in morals to understand that lying is wrong, and he doesn't need a lecture on semantics to suddenly discover that lying by omission is called lying. He also didn't need a refresher course on what constitutes cheating - whether selling one's own possessions or lying about it - is as far as the NCAA is concerned. This is a cover-up rivaled in sloppiness by a lazy fifth-grader plagiarizing by lifting directly from Martin Luther King or Abraham Lincoln.
Earlier this week I wrote that it was a huge stretch to compare Bruce Pearl to Tressel in that Pearl both repeatedly and directly cheated and lied to the NCAA about his actions, whereas Tressel lied about rules violations committed by his players. That stretch has shrunk a bit, now that we know Tressel's lie could be easily confirmed by his own Ohio State email account. It's not quite as ridiculous as Pearl lying to the NCAA that a photo of him and Aaron Craft at his house wasn't taken at his house (the proof's in the picture!) but it's definitely up there (the proof's on your desktop!) Even the least scrutinizing investigator could have discovered this. You can make a public records request to read Gene Smith's or Gordon Gee's email if you'd like. The Freedom of Information Act is almost 50 years old; the electronic amendment to it was enacted under Bill Clinton. One more item to file under things that a 58-year old shouldn't need to be taught.
As for the recipient of those emails, Ted Sarniak, Tressel literally could not have chosen a worse person to create an electronic paper trail to. Whether "Uncle Teddy" - what Pryor calls him - is guilty of doing the kind of boostery things the NCAA frowns upon or not is immaterial. This is another case in a long line of battles between perception and reality. The perception is that Sarniak is dirty. The perception is that the NCAA botched the Cam Newton case (also the reality as well, but this is relevant to the Tatgate aftermath because the NCAA is probably interested in fighting the perception). The perception is that there's far more to this ordeal in the dark underbelly of the Ohio State athletic department than has been revealed, and by confiding in Sarniak - of all people - the teeth of that perception just grew sharper and sprouted chainsaws.
In the broader view of Tressel as a cheater, there are two possibilities here: He has either been a relatively clean coach; an abider of NCAA rules his entire career that clearly - as dramatically illustrated by this ordeal - sucks at being duplicitous. Or he has suddenly lost his grasp on getting away with it and has allowed his defenses and better, diabolical judgments to slip - as dramatically illustrated by this ordeal.
Regardless, a head coach has to be good at this kind of stuff. From playcalling to recruiting to program management, a head coach is only as good as the decisions he makes. Big ticket jobs that compensate exponentially more than your crappy job pays you are that valuable largely because of the decisions those people are chartered with making. It's no different in Tressel's profession. If there is a case to be made for removing Tressel from his position at Ohio State - or for him removing himself - it may be related to the growing, stinky cloud of evidence that he acted underhandedly. However, as an Ohio State fan and college football realist, I'm far more concerned with his galling lack of sound decision-making that led to all of this.
Yes, lies are definitely bad. But as the noted philosopher Pryor famously once said, everyone lies. If everyone who lied was on the chopping block for doing so, we'd all be fired and/or dead. But stupidity is a different story. With every emerging detail of this story, Tressel becomes less and less virtuous (I was trying to protect the kids) and increasingly stupid (I emailed the shadiest character associated with Ohio State football since Robert Q. Baker without using an alias or a secure connection). Regardless of how the NCAA or Ohio State rules in Tressel's fate, this exasperating lapse in judgment is what should be bothering you the most.